Friday, October 25, 2013

Technology is Changing the Way We Eat

I have been doing a bit of research on food lately, and I've been particularly interested in the way technology is shaping the way we eat- from the genetically modified DNA of the corn we consume to the way we discover food trends on Instagram. Where is technology helpful and where is it harmful?

On the one hand, I am enthralled by power of human creativity: We use technology to create drought-resistant GMO seeds and test tube meat to reduce the environmental impacts of cattle farming. A globalised supply chain lets us access produce from around the world, creating jobs and access to fresh produce year round.

On the other, I'm concerned about the externalities that we create with this system- from environmental contamination to skewed economic incentives. I am personally concerned about the impact on our health, particularly from livestock pumped with hormones and antibiotics. And the food supply chain is so complex that horse meat was sold as beef for years before anyone noticed.

As much as I advocate organic/local/ethical food, I would find it hard to survive exclusively on locally grown and seasonal food, particularly in the UK. I would be cutting out salad, fruit, quinoa, chocolate, coffee, soya milk and many other staples of my diet. It's an uncomfortable realisation but an important one. It would not be realistic for me to avoid the global food supply chain. So how can I work with it to ensure that the food I buy meets my standards and my values?

One of the major challenges in understanding food quality is the mis-labelling of products. 24% of the new products that launch each year are categorised as "healthy." "Healthy" and "natural" are unregulated terms and even regulated terms like "gluten-free" are applied to products that wouldn't have gluten anyway to make them appear more healthly. Apps like Good Guide and Fooducate provide breakdowns of common products to help cut through misleading labels. I've also compiled a list of terms below:

Organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.

Seasonality of food refers to the times of year when a given type food is at its peak, either in terms of harvest or its flavour. This is usually the time when the item is the cheapest and the freshest on the market.

The most widely accepted  definition of local food is that used by farmers’ markets to identify producers who are entitled to sell there. This can be summarised as: food produced,  processed, traded and sold within a defined geographic radius, often 30  miles.

Gluten-free food is normally seen as a diet for celiac disease. The European Union requires reliable measurement of the wheat prolamins, gliadins to determine what is gluten-free.

Free range is a term which denotes a method of farming where the animals can roam freely for food, rather than being confined in an enclosure. On many farms, the outdoors ranging area is fenced, thereby technically making this an enclosure, however, free range systems usually offer the opportunity for extensive locomotion and sunlight prevented by indoor housing systems.

Cage-free  refers primarily to eggs, and are from birds that are not raised in cages, but in floor systems such as an open barn.  However, they may still be at close quarters with many other hens.

Foods that are GMO Free refer to food without Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)- products that have been altered at the gene level.

Vegetarian cuisine refers to food that meets vegetarian standards by not including meat and animal tissue products.

Vegan products contain no animal ingredients or by-products, use no animal ingredients or by-products in the manufacturing process, and are not tested on animals.

Fair Trade aims to help producers in developing countries with better trading conditions and promotes sustainability. It advocates the payment of a higher price to exporters as well as higher social and environmental standards.

The Rainforest Alliance works to conserve biodiversity and improve livelihoods by promoting and evaluating the implementation of the most globally respected sustainability standards.

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